The Environment

  Protection Sought For Three Arctic Seal SpeciesMay 31, 2008 08:08 Today the Center for Biological Diversity filed a scientific petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect three ice-dependent seals under the federal Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming. The petition seeks to protect the ringed, bearded and spotted seals, which occur in the icy waters off Alaska in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.

Today’s petition follows previous petitions by the Center seeking protection of the polar bear, Pacific walrus, and ribbon seal, Arctic marine mammals threatened by the loss of their sea-ice habitat in the face of global warming. The polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act on May 15, 2008. The Fisheries Service is currently reviewing the ribbon seal for listing under the Endangered Species Act, while its sister agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to respond to the walrus petition.

“While the polar bear may be the first Arctic species listed under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming, it will, unfortunately, not be the last. Arctic sea ice is melting so rapidly in the face of global warming that every ice-dependent marine mammal is imperiled and needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition.

The ringed, bearded, and spotted seals differ in their use of sea ice, but all are dependent upon it for important life stages. The ringed seal is the most widespread marine mammal in the ice-covered regions of the Northern Hemisphere and the smallest and most ice-adapted of all northern seals. The ringed seal inhabits landfast ice during the winter and spring breeding season and has the ability to make and maintain breathing holes in thick ice and to excavate lairs in snowdrifts over breathing holes, which it uses for resting, giving birth, and nursing pups during spring. Bearded seals reproduce and haul out primarily on drifting pack ice over shallow continental shelf waters where the ice is in constant motion producing leads, polynyas, and other openings. Spotted seals primarily breed on the sea-ice front of the Bering Sea in spring, and move to coastal habitats in the Chukchi Sea during the ice-free season in summer and fall.

The sea-ice habitat of the ringed, bearded, and spotted seal is threatened by rapid warming that is occurring at a pace that is exceeding the predictions of the most advanced climate models. Arctic surface temperatures increased twice as much as the global average during the 20th century. Winter sea-ice extent in 2006 and 2007 declined to a minimum that most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2070, and summer sea-ice extent in 2007 plummeted to a record minimum which most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2050.
  Courts Call President'S Hand On EnvironmentMay 24, 2008 09:35 When President Bush took office in 2001, it was clear his appointees would try to streamline environmental reviews that often prove burdensome to industry. The only question was whether the administration would follow legal means to advance this agenda or try to dodge the law.

The answer is now clear. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration has consistently failed in court when faced with legal claims it is violating the nation's major bedrock environmental statutes.

In case after case, federal judges have rejected administration attempts to increase logging in national forests, avoid protections for threatened wildlife and allow industries to sidestep the mandates of the Clean Air Act.

Bush's defenders say the administration is the victim of activist judges, but this claim doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. Here in California, a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno, Oliver Wanger, ordered a reduction in increased water pumping from the Delta because federal agencies hadn't adequately analyzed the impacts on an endangered fish, the Delta smelt.

No one would accuse Wanger – an appointee of the first President Bush – of being a tool of environmentalists. Previously he has ruled in favor of irrigators in some landmark decisions.

It would also be a stretch to claim the U.S. Supreme Court is a robed hugger of trees. Yet the high court last year sided with California, and against the Bush administration, in determining that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act. That landmark decision sets the stage for California to implement a 2002 law regulating C02 emissions from automobiles, except that the Bush EPA is refusing to issue a waiver the state is seeking.
  Bush'S Polar Bear Legal DisasterMay 24, 2008 09:31 As expected, the U. S. Department of the Interior added the polar bear to the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act last week. Even with the Bush administration's attempt to render the ruling toothless, this action will almost surely go down in history as the turning point in the global-warming debate.

The department concluded that the past and projected melting of sea ice in the Arctic poses an immediate threat to the polar bear's habitat. It pointed to greenhouse-gas-induced climate change as a primary cause for the recession of the sea ice, and emphasized that oil and gas development in the Arctic isn't the reason the polar bear is threatened.

Make no mistake, within a year or two, we can expect the polar bear to begin influencing everyday U. S. economic life.

The polar bear's listing wasn't intended as a back door for environmental groups to bring lawsuits against greenhouse-gas emitters, according to the ruling.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of the animal. Yet, he said, it doesn't mean the law should be used "to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. ESA is not the right tool to set U. S. climate policy."

Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling summarized the Bush administration's actions aptly: "The Department of the Interior has, in short, worked very hard to make sure that its listing of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act does not trigger the usual protections that act provides."

Such an action is logically and ethically indefensible. For the administration to determine that the polar bear is threatened, it had to conclude that global warming will melt the ice that polar bears need to survive. Having reached that conclusion, the Endangered Species Act requires them to take action to slow global warming. They can't decide not to do their job and enforce the law.

One can imagine that there is some not-so-clever polar bear skeptic in the White House who thought this was a brilliant manoeuvre. The fact is, if they believed that inaction was the right policy, then they should have refused to list the bear as threatened. It's ludicrous to try to have it both ways. Historians will doubtless use this cynical decision as a canonical example of what was wrong with this administration.

  No Real Protection for Polar BearsMay 24, 2008 09:16 Finally, after several years of lawsuits and thousands of letters, the Bush Administration has listed the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. Aren’t we all glad?

Not so fast: There is a clause in the act that excludes global warming from the list of threats the federal government must consider when trying to protect polar bear habitat. Instead of “endangered,” the polar bear is listed as “threatened” and gets more limited protection than that provided by a global warming listing. Of course, global warming is the dire threat facing polar bears today, so this means nothing.

During the months leading up to this weak decision, oil leases were issued by the Bush administration in prime polar bear habitat. So what else is new?

  Environmental Deal Sets Aside L.A.-Sized TractMay 24, 2008 09:14 A group of environmentalists and the owners of a large stretch of wilderness have reached a deal that would set aside the largest parcel of land for conservation in California history.

After years of legal tussles, conservationists including the Sierra Club have agreed not to challenge proposed development on the sprawling Tejon Ranch north of Los Angeles in exchange for close to 240,000 acres, in a deal to be announced Thursday.

At 375 square miles, the preserve of desert, woodlands and grasslands would be eight times the size of San Francisco and nearly the size of Los Angeles, said Bill Corcoran, the Sierra Club's senior regional representative.

"There is, in my opinion, no other place like it in California. It's unrivaled in the diversity of native wildlife and plants," said Corcoran, who helped negotiate the deal. "Tejon is key to us because it's the only place where the Sierra Nevadas, the coastal range and Mojave Desert and Central Valley all meet."

Tejon Ranch sits atop the Tehachapi Mountains, 60 miles north of Los Angeles, and is home to elk, wild turkeys, coyotes, bears and eagles, as well as a critical habitat for condors.

The Tejon Ranch Co. has been trying for years to develop three projects, or 10 percent of the 270,000-acre ranch, while appeasing environmentalists.

The other groups that have signed on are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon California, the Planning and Conservation League and the Endangered Habitats League.

In 2005, the company and a national land trust hailed an agreement to sell more than one-third of the ranch for use as a nature preserve. But that agreement failed to satisfy the Tejon Natural Heritage Park Committee, a coalition of 12 conservation groups.
  Government Accountability Office Finds Illegal Political Interference In Endangered Species Decisions Is WidespreadMay 22, 2008 20:57 The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report today finding that political interference in scientific decisions concerning the nation’s endangered species were not limited to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald. MacDonald resigned in disgrace one year ago after an investigation by the Department of the Interior’s Inspector General found she had used her position to aggressively squelch protection of endangered species and ecosystems. Today’s report found that other Bush administration officials have similarly interfered in crucial decisions concerning endangered species and their habitat.

“The Government Accountability Office has today confirmed something we’ve suspected all along,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “MacDonald was not just a bad apple, but rather was part of a coordinated Bush administration effort to undermine protection for endangered species — including the recently listed polar bear, which is still subject to harmful oil and gas activities.”

The report cited denial of protection for the Miami blue butterfly as an example of a decision where another Interior official “besides Ms. MacDonald” was involved, noting that “Service officials at all levels supported a recommendation for listing the species” on an emergency basis, but that this other official derailed this listing by instead making the species a candidate for protection. “Today’s report confirms that denying, delaying, and limiting endangered species protection against the advice of respected scientists is the modus operandi of the Bush Department of the Interior,” said Snape.

In addition to finding that other officials in Interior had tampered with endangered species decisions, the report found that Ms. MacDonald had issued a number of informal policies that limited protection for endangered species, including those that called for ignoring scientific recovery plans when designating critical habitat and limiting critical habitat to the narrow area in which species were found. The report concluded that six of the eight species that have been delisted under the Bush administration had not met goals established in their recovery plan and that the Fish and Wildlife Service was not responding to petitions to protect new species in a timely manner.

“The next administration is going to have its work cut out for it to correct the problems with endangered species management created by this administration,” added Snape. Indeed, the next administration will be left with a legacy of 281 candidate species that are recognized as warranting protection, including the Miami blue butterfly, but have yet to be provided protection; a slew of critical habitat designations that the courts have found to be not scientifically based and therefore illegal; and an embattled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in which agency scientists feel like they can’t do their jobs. Correcting these problems will require increased funding for the endangered species program, a schedule for providing protection to all candidate species in the next five years, revision of all critical habitat designations in which MacDonald’s bad policies limited protections, and policies that protect the agency’s scientists from political interference.
  Polar Bear Added To U.S. Endangered Species ListMay 14, 2008 12:34 Wow... a major step.
On the eve of a court deadline, the U.S. Interior Department is adding the polar bear to the list threatened species. This comes after evidence that rising temperatures are causing Arctic Sea ice -- the bears' habitat -- to vanish.

This makes the mighty polar bear the first animal to be listed as endangered or threatened as a result of global warming.

In Canada, polar bears are listed as a species of "special concern." At the moment, Canada has no plans to change the designation, but Wednesday's U.S. move might put more pressure on Environment Minister John Baird to move further on the matter.

Dirk Kempthorne, the U.S. Interior Secretary, said he ordered a geological survey that shows even less sea ice this year than earlier models had predicted.

The expected decline in Arctic sea ice could wipe out two-thirds of the polar bear population by 2050.

There are an estimated 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic, many of them in the 30 million acres of the Alaska's Chukchi Sea, which is due to be auctioned for oil and gas exploration.

The World Wildlife Federation and other environmentalists have been lobbying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to add polar bears to the Endangered Species Act ahead of that auction.

The U.S. government has argued that closing the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas exploration would lead to higher fuel prices.

The decision on polar bears comes just a day before U.S. court-imposed deadline on the issue.
  Bush Sets Record: Two Years Since Any U.S. Species Listed As EndangeredMay 12, 2008 16:06 Friday marked two years since the Department of the Interior last protected a new U.S. species under the Endangered Species Act. This period includes the entire tenure of Dirk Kempthorne as Secretary of the Interior and is by far the longest period without a new species being protected since the landmark federal law was passed, surpassing even James Watt, who, under Reagan, in 1981 and 1982 went 382 days without protecting a species.

“The Bush administration has been an unmitigated disaster for the nation’s endangered species, delaying and denying protection for hundreds of animals and plants,” said Noah Greenwald, science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The drought in new species protections is not for lack of species in need. Indeed, the Fish and Wildlife Service currently maintains a list of 280 candidate species that are recognized as warranting protection, many desperately, but for which the agency claims they lack resources to provide such protection. On average, these 280 candidate species have been waiting for protection for 19 years. Such delays have real consequences, with at least 24 species having gone extinct after being designated candidates for protection.

“Because extinction is forever, delays in protection of the nation’s most imperiled species are unacceptable,” said Greenwald. “The Endangered Species Act can save these 280 species, but only once they’re granted endangered status.”

Overall, the Bush administration has protected the fewest species of any administration in the history of the Endangered Species Act, to date protecting only 59 species, compared to 522 under the Clinton administration and 231 under Bush Sr.’s administration. On average, the administration has listed only seven species per year. By contrast, an average of 65 species per year were listed during the Clinton administration, and 58 species per year were listed during the first Bush administration.

  Endangered Species Up The Risk Of Extinction For Other Species In Ecological CommunityMay 09, 2008 15:52 An endangered species of flora or fauna ups the risk of the extinction of the other species in its ecological community. Trophically unique species are more vulnerable for cascading extinction, according to studies of a team of theoretical biologists active at Linköping University and the University of Sheffield.

The researchers simulated what happens in a food web when a species dies out, to see which species might die out and what the consequences might be in each case. Findings indicate that secondary extinction gives rise to a greater decline in trophic diversity than can be explained by mere chance.

A jackstraws analogy can be made. In the game of jackstraws, or spillikins, the players try to pull a stick out of a jumbled pile without moving the other sticks. The sticks can represent members of an ecological community. Some species, like some sticks, can easily be moved with no consequences to their neighbors. Others occupy a unique position in the food web and their removal will have a considerable impact on other members.

One instance of this is the sea otter. It lives on mussels and sea urchins, and when it disappeared from the tang forests along the Pacific coastline of the Americas, entire ecosystems collapsed. Many other species in the otter's ecosystem became locally extinct.

The LiU-Sheffield study shows that those species, which disappear in the second wave of extinction, have a trophically unique role. Once these keystone species are identified, conservation activities can be directed where they will help most.
  Device Lets Ships Hear Whale Chatter, Avoid StrikesMay 08, 2008 10:19 A spotter bangs three times on the boat's cabin roof, signaling the captain to cut the throttle -- now.

In the foggy gray of Cape Cod Bay, the reason for the abrupt stop soon becomes apparent: The research vessel is surrounded by rare North Atlantic right whales, their glossy black heads bobbing just above the surface as they feed on plankton slicks.

Ship strikes are the top human-related cause of death for these mammals, which are in danger even from this vessel, a slow-moving research boat called the Shearwater. But new technology could soon help safeguard the whales by using sound, not sight, to track the creatures' movements.

"We're listening to their chatter," whale expert Christopher Clark said aboard the Shearwater, referring to the grunts and groans whales use to communicate. "They can't keep their mouths shut."

In the past, tracking whales often depended on inefficient aerial surveys, which were limited by weather and how often the whales surfaced.

Now researchers listen for the whales using 13 underwater microphones attached to buoys off the coast of New England. Eventually, scientists hope to follow their movements closely enough so boats can slow down and post lookouts.

"The slower the ships go, the lower the risk of killing a whale with a ship," said Clark, director of the bioacoustics research program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the project's lead scientist.

Kathy Metcalf of the Chamber of Shipping of America said shippers would welcome a listening system because they are currently being asked to reduce their speed despite uncertainties about where the whales actually are.

"We've been saying all along that if we can get real-time information, we want to avoid them," Metcalf said.

The right whale was hunted nearly to extinction in the late 18th century, and the death of even one in the estimated population of 350 to 400 is a setback. Since 1986, at least 32 right whales have been killed by ships.
  Koalas Under Threat From Toxic Eucalyptus LeavesMay 07, 2008 09:43 Koalas are threatened by the rising level of carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere because it saps nutrients from the eucalyptus leaves they feed on, a researcher said Wednesday.

Ian Hume, emeritus professor of biology at Sydney University, said he and his researchers also found that the amount of toxicity in the leaves of eucalyptus saplings rose when the level of carbon dioxide within a greenhouse was increased.

Hume presented his research on the effects of carbon dioxide on eucalyptus leaves to the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra on Wednesday.

The researchers found that carbon dioxide in eucalyptus leaves affects the balance of nutrients and "anti-nutrients" -- substances that are either toxic or interfere with the digestion of nutrients.

An increase in carbon dioxide favors the trees' production of carbon-based anti-nutrients over nutrients, so leaves can become toxic to koalas, Hume said.

Some eucalyptus species may have high protein content, but anti-nutrients such as tannins bind the protein so it cannot be digested by koalas.
  Censorship Prevalent At Us Environment AgencyMay 06, 2008 15:00 A survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a lobby group based in Washington DC, has revealed that many scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency feel unable to speak openly for fear of retaliation from senior officials appointed by the Bush administration.

The findings of the survey, in which a total of 1583 EPA scientists were surveyed, have proved how widespread the censorship of science has become at the agency.

According to a report in New Scientist, over half of the scientists said that they were not allowed to talk freely with the media, while a quarter said they would not be allowed to publish results that contradicted the agency's official line.

The survey also revealed that researchers were often pressured not to publicly discuss issues linked to climate change, such as the coastal erosion caused by rising sea levels.

But the survey does note some small victories for free speech.

For example, when one researcher was barred from talking about climate change at a conference, the meeting's organisers told the EPA that they would hold a 20-minute silence in place of the missing talk, which caused the agency to reverse its decision.

  Agencies Issue Plan To Run Columbia Dams, Preserve SalmonMay 05, 2008 21:33 The Bush administration Monday issued its final court-ordered plans for making Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams and irrigation projects safe for endangered salmon.

The proposed changes in operations would cost hundreds of millions of dollars but no dam removals.

Once an expected challenge is filed, it will be up to U.S. District Judge James Redden to decide whether the plans — known as biological opinions — meet the demands of the Endangered Species Act to put salmon on the road to recovery.

Last year he warned the original proposal was seriously flawed, and that he would turn the job over to an independent panel of experts if the government fails again.

Federal officials said the effort was their most robust and comprehensive yet.

Salmon advocates blasted them as a step backward. They say the plans depend too much on restoring habitat in tributaries to boost fish numbers and not enough on reducing the high numbers of young salmon killed by 14 federal hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers on their way to the sea.

The plans do not include removing four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington, which is favored by salmon advocates.

"This plan shows it is time for Congress and the next administration to restore the balance in this river, assure the law and science are followed, and protect the thousands of family wage jobs," said Todd True, lead attorney for salmon advocates.

  Us Plan To Protect Right Whale From Shipping Blocked By CheneyMay 01, 2008 22:42 Efforts to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from being killed by ships are being blocked by Vice President Dick Cheney according to leaked documents.

A behind the scenes struggle is raging between the White House and US government scientists who want to force ships to slow down near the calving grounds of the almost extinct right whale.

The right whale controversy is the latest example of the Bush Administration sidestepping the advice of its on scientists which are aimed at protecting endangered species or threats to the environment. On Monday, a judge had to order the administration to release its much-delayed decision aimed at protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.

Only 350 of the whales remain in Atlantic waters off America's eastern seaboard and they are considered one of the most endangered species on Earth. Government scientists warn that the loss of just one more pregnant female is enough to doom the species, which was almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century.

Every year around three right whales are either injured or killed in collisions with ocean-going vessels like containerized cargo ships even though they are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Right whales frequently wash up on shore bearing deep scars from being struck by ships propellers.

To reduce ship strikes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decided that ships should restrict their speed to 10 knots or less near whale feeding and calving grounds during parts of the year.

But Mr Cheney's office, which tends to operate in secrecy, sent letters repeatedly questioning whether the rule was needed according to leaked documents. Flatly contradicting the scientific research Mr Cheney's staff argued, "that we have no evidence that lowering the speeds of 'large ships' will actually make a difference."

A critique of the scientists analysis by the administration led to a strongly worded reply in which they said: "The basic facts remain that there is a direct relationship" between a vessel's speed and the likelihood of death or serious injury to the whale, and "at vessel speeds at or below 10 knots, the probability of death/serious injury is greatly reduced."

There was, the scientists wrote, "no basis to overturn our previous conclusion that imposing a speed limit on large vessels would be beneficial to whales."

Congressman Henry Waxman who publicised the correspondence said it was "the latest instance of the White House ignoring scientists and other experts."

A number of European shipping companies have strongly opposed the NOAA proposal, saying slowing their vessels will hurt the economy and cost the industry money. But while the World Shipping Council wants to block the rule, but the largely US Chamber of Shipping of America is in favour and its director of maritime affairs, Kathy J. Metcalf has told the White House that "the economic impacts" of cutting shipping speeds "are well worth the benefits."

The right whales migrate from the Gulf of Maine to warmer waters off Florida and Georgia to give birth. The exhausted mothers, which have not eaten for weeks, then make their way slowly up the coast with their young, passing close by busy shipping ports off Georgia and Massachusetts.